COVID-19: MITIGATING FEAR AND LONELINESS IN SENIORS
With the world in crisis mode, routine has gone by the wayside. Stress and anxiety associated with isolation and the unknown can quickly take over our lives and trigger serious mental health conditions. Right now, It’s important to ensure that our senior loved ones are well connected with those who can help them.
IS YOUR LOVED ONE LONELY?
Physical isolation has become commonplace. In order to protect the physical health of our older loved ones, many of us have foregone our regular visits, dinner dates and social activities with Grandma or Grandpa. In this case, it is important to ensure that our loved ones are not lonely. While being physically isolated from friends and family, older adults need to maintain a sense of connection throughout the process. They need to know that they have someone to reach out to in order to avoid a sense of helplessness. Well established research, and my own experience in the field, has shown that loneliness is associated with a string of physical and mental health issues commonly faced by seniors. Depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure and cognitive decline are just a few conditions commonly affecting older adults that can be triggered by the distressed feeling of loneliness.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
While we wait for physical interaction to be safe, we can ensure that our loved ones are socially connected in other ways. The easiest, and most common way to connect right now is via facetime, zoom or some other video conferencing app. Most of them are easy to use, and this can be a good way to reinstate a sense of normalcy. If these calls are scheduled, it can help seniors get into a routine, and give them something to look forward to and prepare for. If you have a regular tradition like watching a movie together on Sundays that can be done over video calls pausing periodically to discuss the show or movie. You can also send gifts through the mail, and greater creativity is always valued. However, the important part of all of this is ensuring your loved ones feel like they have a network to fall back on.
Staying connected with your loved one will also help you identify any issues that might arise. If you feel worried that they might be suffering as a result of fear, anxiety and social isolation, here are some warning signs you need to look out for:
- Your loved one might be abnormally quiet or tearful, withholding from conversation they would enjoy under most circumstances. In contrast they may exhibit pressured speech, speaking at an accelerated rate with a sense of urgency inappropriate for the situation at hand. These can be signs that your loved one is experiencing depression, severe anxiety or other mental health issues related to dramatic change.
- When fear becomes panic, the mental and physical health of your loved one could be at risk. Irrational fears, and unnecessary dramatic shifts in behavior to accommodate those fears can signal panic. Sleep loss, irritability, agitation and slower processing can also be signs of a mental health crisis. Do not make the mistake of writing these behaviors off as normal for old age. As behavioral health experts know, many symptoms that older adults exhibit are ignored until significant damage has been done to their mental and physical health.
- Stated threats, often in the form of off-hand comments, can be a cry for help. If your loved one says things, like “I’d rather be dead than live through another month of lockdown,” this should be given serious attention. Seniors are amongst the most likely in the country to commit suicide, and recent developments can be serious triggers.
- Radio Silence:
- If you’re used to hearing from your loved one, and you haven’t been hearing from them or cannot get in touch with them, this can be a warning sign for serious mental health issues. In this case, you can always ask for a safety check from the local fire department or sheriff’s office.
These warning signs can be identified with thorough communication. Don’t lecture your loved one but be sure to ask prompting questions that can give you peace of mind. Ask them how they’ve slept, who they’ve spoken to recently, and how they’re feeling. This knowledge will help you and your loved one gauge their mental health. If you feel concerned, it’s always a good idea to work with a mental health professional. Specialists in senior behavioral health, such as those at WellQor, can be crucial in ensuring the lasting mental and emotional health of older adults.
Candace Williams, LCSW, ASW-G, FDC, CMS, FDC, MCPM, is the Director of Clinician Development for WellQor, the nation's leading provider of behavioral health services for Seniors. Candace received her MSW from Columbia University, and has spent over 20 years in the field developing unique interventions to better the lives of her clients. Throughout her time in the field, Candace has worked as a certified geriatric social worker, certified mediator, crisis management specialist, and family development specialist. She received the UnSung Heroes Award for her work during September 11th, where she supervised the disaster welfare inquiry center. For the last 10 years, she has specialized in working with older adults and their families, establishing herself as an industry expert with multiple published works, and regular public appearances speaking on the emotional and cognitive health of seniors. At WellQor, Candace has created an extensive clinician training program, and continues to oversee the professional development and training of new clinicians. She also moderates their unique Clinician Connect platform, where psychologists and social workers collaborate to identify the appropriate interventions for older adults who are in need of support.